Seniors hear about the latest scams
Around 20 senior citizens gathered in the Wilton Senior Center lounge last month for a discussion on scams, led by Robin Eichen, a senior attorney in New York who works for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and William Kalb, a special agent in charge at the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s New York Field Division.
Eichen discussed imposter scams — when people pretend to be from government agencies like the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Medicare, and Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
“I’m from the IRS and you owe back taxes and you’re going to be arrested if you don’t pay” is a common thing imposters say, said Eichen. “They also say, ‘You owe money. Unless you pay, you’ll be deported,’ or they’ll claim to be from tech support and want you to give them access to your computer.”
Although there are many variations of imposters, said Eichen, there are commonalities.
“They want you to wire your money or pay cash — anything that’s harder to trace,” she said. “Scammers also want you to give or confirm personal information so they can use it for identity theft.”
Eichen said common scammer tactics include making big promises, asking for money or personal information, requesting money in hard-to-trace forms like cash, gift cards or wire transfers, and rushing people to act quickly.
“Never give your personal information to someone who calls and asks for it, never wire money or give prepaid cards to someone who asks out of the blue, and find a way to get off the phone,” said Eichen.
“These people are good at what they do. They’ve talked even the most educated people into giving them what they want after keeping them on the phone long enough.”
IRS impersonation schemes
Kalb said one of the functions of the Treasury’s New York Field Division is to investigate crimes in which scammers “utilize the IRS” by impersonating an IRS employee or using the IRS database to commit fraud.
“We keep weekly tallies of all the analytics and statistics regarding IRS impersonation schemes, [which] first reared its ugly head in August of 2013,” said Kalb. “That’s when people started receiving phone calls from scammers telling them they owed money to the IRS and would be arrested if they didn’t pay immediately.”
Scammers use tactics, said Kalb, like asking people to go to their banks, withdraw money, and deposit it into an account at another bank.
The IRS would never ask someone to pay with prepaid cards or by depositing their money into an account at a different bank, said Kalb, adding that “if someone calls you claiming to be from the IRS, hang up the phone.”
“If you owe money to the IRS, I promise you you’re going to know — and if you do owe money to the IRS, the first contact that they make with you is never going to be by telephone, ever. Generally, they will send you three letters first,” he said.
“An IRS employee is more likely to knock on your door than they are to call you on the phone for the first contact. And if the IRS is calling you on the phone, I promise you’ve already had contact with that individual before.”
Stopping IRS impersonators is hard because “there’s so much money involved.”
“Just on the IRS front, we have recorded an actual fraud loss of $65 million,” he said. “That tells you why there’s real money to be made. It’s worth that risk to them.”
Kalb said scammers not only “capitalize on fear” but “compound that fear through other actions,” such as through the use of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology, which allows people to use computers to make phone calls using any number they want.
“They can basically put in any phone number they want to show up on your phone,” said Kalb. “They could be sitting over in a call center in India, but the number they use has your area code.”
Kalb said it’s “very, very important” that people don’t “play games” with scammers.
“I hear about people who identify a scam and decide to keep the [scammer] on the phone to antagonize him. The scammers don’t like that,” he said.
There have been “several occasions,” said Kalb, when scammers have gotten so mad that they do something called “swatting” — when a scammer uses VoIP technology to call police and report a crime in progress at the home of the person they’re trying to scam.
“Police respond fast and have ended up kicking down the doors of people who were actually the victims of crimes — all because they decided to antagonize these scammers.”
Kalb said the most successful way he’s heard of people getting rid of scammers is by “saying, ‘Sir, I know this is fraud, I know this is illegal, I know you’re not the IRS, I’m not going to pay you money and I’m going to notify law enforcement’ — and then hanging up the phone.”
“Generally the calls stop. Why is that? These people don’t want to waste their time,” he said. “In crime, like any business, time is money.”
While it can be a curse, said Kalb, technology can also be a blessing.
“We once had a picture of a guy holding up a Best Buy receipt and could see his thumb in the picture,” he said.
“We were able to zoom in so close [and get his] fingerprint from a picture, and we identified that guy and linked him to crimes in eight different states. He’s actually being federally prosecuted in Arkansas right now.”
Not only have there been more than 100 “successfully conducted federal prosecutions” against people commiting IRS impersonation schemes nationwide, said Kalb, but individuals linked to call center scams in India have also been indicted.
Another common form of fraud is the “lottery scheme,” said Kalb. It’s also known as “advanced fee fraud,” he said, “because you have to pay to receive.”
“If anyone says you have to pay them in order to receive winnings or something you’re entitled to, it’s a scam,” said Kalb, noting that these scams typically come in the form of mailings, emails or phone calls.
For example, Kalb said, scammers will say, “Hey, you just won the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes and you’re going to get $2.7 million. You just have to pay X number of dollars in taxes to free up the money.”
Lottery schemes work because the scammers are “very persuasive” and the victims are “hopeful,” said Kalb, noting that many of the people targeted by these schemes have never entered to win such a sweepstakes.
Kalb said lottery schemes involve “some of the most vicious individuals” he’s ever seen.
“I’ve seen them clear out people’s life savings,” he said. “These people don’t have morals, they don’t have ethics and they don’t care about you.”
Fraud, identity theft and unfair business practices should be reported to the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint .
Calls from IRS imposters should be reported to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at tigta.gov.